I've kept this blog, on and off, since 2006. In 2015 I used it to chart daily encounters, images, thoughts and feelings about volcanic basalt/bluestone in Melbourne and Victoria, especially in the first part of the year. I plan to write a book provisionally titled Bluestone: An Emotional History, about human uses of and feelings for bluestone. But I am also working on quite a few other projects and a big grant application, especially now I am on research leave. I'm working mostly from home, then, for six months, and will need online sociability for company!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Mimesis, Diegesis and Infinite Regress

One of the most useful binary oppositions in literary theory is that between mimesis and diegesis, or between showing and telling. To over-simplify: a play like Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida shows the action; an epic poem like the Odyssey narrates the action in involuted folds of narrative, forwards and backwards like Penelope's shuttle. (And yes, Auerbach's Mimesis is indeed one of my favourite books.) And yes, I know this distinction is ripe for unpicking. But it's where I begin, today.

I've been thinking about the film, In Search of Beethoven, which I saw yesterday. It's a wonderful documentary, though it holds its fire all the time, and is quite restrained. It's more concerned with emotion than psychology, for example, and its attempts to fill out cultural and historical context are sketchy at best. For all that, though, it's surprisingly satisfying. It's full of irresistible close-ups of pianos, fingers, and the wood grain on the side of the piano keys and cellos, the extraordinary and unlikely tactility of bow hairs across strings.

The film has a clear message too: re-orient your vision of Beethoven as tempestuous angry man, frustrated by deafness; and re-think a man of a great mind and a great heart in struggle with each other. A man of generosity, spirituality and humane love.

Some of the most compelling scenes are where musicians demonstrate and talk about particular passages. Mimesis and diegesis working together. Someone explains that Beethoven was particularly good, as a pianist, at repeating a note, or progressing smoothly down a scale of octaves, and wrote such features into his work to annoy less able pianists. At one point, someone plays a repeated B, and shows how Beethoven is just "listening to the note" at that point.

But the most amazing moment for me was when Hélène Grimaud is rehearsing the second movement of the 4th piano concerto, and plays, very slowly, its slow descending scales (I listened to my CD of Lang Lang playing this this afternoon). Her face is overcome with anxiety, tension and love of every note of this music: in perfectly balanced irregular rhythm, note by note runs off wood and drops into a deep pool. It's utterly engrossing. Far less spectacular than the big symphonies, with their insistent obsessive rhythms, but completely compelling. It was about halfway through what is a rather long and academic film, but the cinema audience was suddenly transfixed and silent. I'm sure I was not the only one to feel the tears running down.

But of course, I can only try and tell you, diegetically, what this moment of mimesis was like. The other way to tell you is to say that I just put my ipod on shuffle. The first thing that came up was a Bach cantata, and I think for the first time in my life I heard Bach as a mechanical martinet of a composer. What if I am becoming a romantic, after all these years?


Jack Tan said...

Thanks for your review of the film. Beethoven's 4th piano concerto is a lovely work. I think it speaks so eloquently in such a simple manner, without resorting to the grand gestures of the late romantic works.

I wonder what you think of the description of the 2nd movement as 'Orpheus taming the furies'?

Tatyana Larina said...

This is a beautiful post. Conveying impression and feeling is a difficult matter, as this review so articulately demonstrates.

Being a (bit) romantic can't be too bad. Why do we need to feel uneasy about it?

Stephanie Trigg said...

Orpheus taming the furies, eh?

Well, it's hard, this kind of thing. I remember being somewhat underwhelmed by much of the rather flowery descriptive mode practised in musicology (this was in the mid- seventies when I studied it at school), but on the other hand, the diegetic temptation to translate one medium into another (mostly, painting or music into words) is often irresistible, and there are certainly moments in the film when well-chosen words absolutely added to my sense of what the music was doing. If you invoke Orpheus, you're invoking another whole complicated, dramatic and ultimately tragic narrative (Eurydice), so that's the risk there. Depends what you really want the phrase to do. Sometimes the really fancy descriptions seem to be competing in their own struggle to outdo one another. And often, less is more. But in terms of the contrast between piano and orchestra in this movement, the idea of "taming" is a very evocative one for me.

Tatyana, I guess I'm guilty of a little intellectual shorthand here. I'm a medievalist by training, and we are often more comfortable with the early modern or the baroque or the modernist than the romantic (I mean, as a mode of artistic expression tied to a distinct historical/social/cultural period). I'm certainly not averse to romance, or romanticism as an emotional or an expressive state: I was trying to register a possible shift in my professional identity, is all.

You're right to pick me up on this.

stray said...

It's a slippery slope into delinquency: